Back in 2007, ITV found itself facing the BBC’s Saturday evening family juggernaut Doctor Who in the TV schedules and needed to deploy an emergency riposte to the revived sci-fi classic. Its answer was Primeval, a show that I admit I never really took to and only watched on an infrequent basis at the time and didn’t much take to when I did. Since the six-part first series is currently being repeated on a daily basis on UKTV channel Watch, I decided to give it a second chance and see if I could put my finger on exactly why the show didn’t work for me.
To distinguish itself against Doctor Who – which is a show about people travelling through time – Primeval has the past travelling to the modern day instead through little rips in space-time (dubbed anomalies). This allows for a monster of the week, typically a dinosaur such as a Scutosaurus, Gorgonopsid, Mosasaur, Hesperornis or a Pteranodon (the latter being something akin to what I was taught to call a pterodactyl as a school kid, but all the names have changed since then!)
It was always clear that he show was also trying to win popularity from fans of then in-vogue documentary series like Walking With Dinosaurs with their ground-breaking CGI special effects. Given how vital the FX are to the show’s entire premise, you’d think that these would be pretty poor and turn out to be the reason for why the series was never the success that ITV needed it to be. In fact, the FX sequences were impressive for the time and still hold up well today, and are streets ahead of a lot of equivalent CGI work in rivals shows – including Doctor Who itself. There’s also no problem with the season 1 main ensemble cast, who are all likeable characters and universally well-played. Hannah Spearritt is probably the most surprising success, since she was formerly best known as one of the line-up of S Club 7 and seemingly only handed the role of zookeeper Abby Maitland to ape the casting of pop singer Billie Piper as the latest travelling companion of Doctor Who, but she defies expectations to put in a winning and perfectly natural performance much as Piper did in the rival show.
So what’s the problem? All the pieces are in play, so why didn’t the show engage me in 2007? It turns out that you don’t have to look too deep to find the answer to that one; and in fact, it’s the explicit lack of depth which is pretty much the issue.
The producers of Primeval work on the assumption that this is a family show, by which they take it to mean it’s a kid’s show and has to work first and foremost for seven-year-olds (and mostly boys at that.) They write it with their assumptions of that audience demographic in mind: nothing too complicated, nothing too demanding, just lots of running around, action and cool FX and that way everyone will be happy. Right? Actually even (especially?) seven year olds will quickly tire of such simplistic fare, while the rest of the family will start fidgeting even halfway through the first episode let alone being able to sit still for an entire season. Every episode seems fundamentally the same: some creepy early ‘stalking’ scenes involving an briefly-glimpsed monster, a bit of light-hearted comedy and banter between the main cast, and then the runaround chase scenes kick in for the remainder of the episode and then the end titles roll. That’s it.
There’s a vague nod to something resembling a series arc with the character of Helen Cutter (Juliet Aubrey) who is a walking, talking plot device in the way she keeps popping up literally out of no where to impart a couple of lines of plot exposition or to get the heroes out of a jam, but this goes essentially no where in season 1. There’s virtually no attempt to make any real use of the anomalies other than to serve up the monster of the week, at least not until the very last minutes of season 1 when the show unexpectedly pulls off a change of direction that’s wholly unexpected given its lack of interest in such plot possibilities for the entire season to date.
The central characters are similarly shallow. They are at best two-note, blending their basic archetype together with an ‘accent’: Nick Cutter (Douglas Henshall) is the brilliant expert who is haunted by the disappearance of his wife eight years before and baffled by her return now; Stephen Hart (James Murray) is Cutter’s research assistant who suddenly becomes the all-action hero handling guns better than the professional soldiers, while looking like someone recently out of a boy band; Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts) is the endearing techie-geek providing most of the comedy – he’s even told to his face that he’s the team’s version of R2-D2, although that feels very like the moment in which Mickey Smith in Doctor Who realises that he’s the Tardis team’s ‘tin dog’ (K-9).
Spearritt’s character Abby seems to spend half of season 1 mooning after Stephen and in a state of semi-undress presumably as a sop to get the fathers at home to consent to watching the show, and it’s to Spearritt’s credit that the character is still immediately one of the more likeable and rounded ones. Part of her success is that the show is at its best when being humorous, which means that Spearritt – paired in scenes mainly with Andrew-Lee Potts – gets some of the warmest and most engaging moments which allow them both to effectively contrast with the sequences of peril and high drama that follow. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that as the show went on its these two who end up largely taking over later seasons from the nominal stars.
But in season 1, even the best of the cast are struggling against paper thin scripts in which large sections of the story seem to have been replaced by a Post-It note saying, “insert 15 minute CGI chase scene here.” Arguably it’s a blessing that the writers aren’t called upon to do more, because when they do limp into action the results are clunky and obvious. For example: there’s a moment in the penultimate episode of season 1 where Cutter suddenly kisses Home Office civil servant Claudia Brown (Lucy Brown) despite the two having shared absolutely no chemistry at all up to this point. It’s done purely to set up a laughable ‘love triangle’ for Cutter between Claudia and his back-from-the-dead wife Helen, and also to set the stage from the ‘no one can have seen that coming’ final scene cliffhanger in the season finale.
There’s other lazy, ill-thought-out writing going on throughout the series. At one point, Claudia is knocked unconscious and diagnosed with mild concussion, which is fair enough; but the crack medic attending her misses the fact that she’s also got plot-convenient temporary blindness. And why is someone with a simple mild concussion receiving a blood transfusion? (Answer: so that the bag of blood can spill on her and make her the target of the bloodthirsty Anurognathus monter-of-the-week, of course!) Meanwhile Abby is set up as working for a zoo in episode 1, a fact not mentioned again until the final episode where suddenly she needs to be in harm’s way. So off she goes back to the day job after a month of running around as part of the anomaly response team. And as for that amateur-hour team, consisting of Cutter with his merry band and a bunch of Keystone Kop ‘special forces’ soldiers driving around in Land Rovers – would that really be the British government’s entire response to rips in time and dinosaurs at loose in Britain? One would hope for something slightly more robust, especially given that the civil servant in charge (Ben Miller stealing scenes with all the best dry lines as Sir James Lester) is acting like the latest creature-related death is no more than an irritating distraction to his lunch plans at the club. God knows, classic 70s Who was no paragon of realism by any means but at least the UK and UN swung into action with a properly structured permanent military response team for such occasions!
Okay, enough nit-picking. The truth is that there’s nothing outrageously bad here, it’s all perfectly serviceable providing you have an undemanding audience. It’s just that the show was set up to take on Doctor Who and that’s like comparing a steak dinner at the finest restaurant in town to a cheeseburger from your nearest fast food retailer. Of course Primeval fails in that confrontation. It’s lucky to have a single sub-text going on at any given point in time, whereas in modern Doctor Who by Russell T Davis and Steven Moffat there are always at least six layers in play in plot and character: it might be too much at times, and you might not always like the results, but you can’t help but admire the courage and ambition of Who. It treats the entire family from seven to seventy as intelligent people who will get this stuff if it’s presented to them well enough, whereas Primeval seems perpetually scared that it’s going over the heads of the little’uns and notches its ambitions down a little more at every opportunity.
As commented above, developments at the end of season 1 hint that the producers and writers might be on the verge of aiming their sights higher in season 2. I haven’t watched that far yet on UKTV, but from my contemporaneous memories of viewing infrequent episodes I seem to recall that time and again it made a feint in the right direction only to fall quickly backwards into a safe rutt of monster-chasing runaround routine. The programme was eventually cancelled, and then revived after ITV struck a co-production deal with digital/cable rival network UKTV for an additional run – and the most surprising thing is that finally in season 5 the show actually started to really find its feet and come good (as I mentioned at the time in an early Taking The Short View review in June 2011.) Naturally, this was the moment when the axe fell for real and the show had no more lucky escapes up its sleeve.
Although that said, it turns out that Primeval might have something akin to life-after-death after all, in the form of a Canadian spin-off version called Primeval: New World. Whether this will prove a success or not remains to be seen – it’s currently airing on Canadian channel SPACE and will be starting on UKTV’s Watch on Tuesdays at 9pm from January 9 and is even kicked off with a cameo appearance from the original British series by Andrew-Lee Potts as Connor Temple.
Whatever you think about Primeval, you have to give it credit for its tenacity, its refusal to go quietly into the night and its plain stubbornness in not allowing itself to become extinct. If it had developed more brains and courage early on, it might even have been successful – but that’s the cruel lesson of evolution for you.